StoryCorps Preserves the Past for the Future

By Trudy Whiteman

I’m sitting at a narrow table in a capsule in the middle of Grand Central Terminal. The booth is completely sealed off from the storied hubbub of the place. Across from me are my 92-year-old father and 85-year-old mother. They eye me warily. There is a microphone between us. A perfect stranger sits to my right in front of an instrument panel. He is called The Facilitator.

What you have just read is neither sci-fi fantasy, brought to you by a middle aged writer, nor the first scene in a recurring nightmare. This dreamscape scenario, in which the setup remains the same but the characters change every 40 minutes, takes place daily at both Grand Central Terminal and the World Trade Center site, as well as in two mobile recording studios that travel throughout the country. It is StoryCorps, an ambitious oral-history project in which ordinary people are encouraged to invite a family member or friend to sit down with them for a Q&A. The strangers at the controls – who do have names and are very gentle – record the interviews and may pose a question or two if the story being told starts to get fuzzy.

The session costs only $10, and the subject of the interview leaves with a CD recording of the proceedings. With the participants’ written permission, a copy is also archived with the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Segments of some of the interviews – the hilarious, the moving, the painful, the universal – are broadcast regularly on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.

StoryCorps is the brainchild of Dave Isay, a public-radio producer and MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, and is modeled on the oral-history project produced by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. This New Deal initiative not only created jobs but gave voice to Americans struggling to survive the Great Depression. StoryCorps is supported by a consortium of public and corporate donors, and through private donations. It is envisioned as the largest oral-history project ever undertaken – the plan being to record more than 250,000 interviews over a ten-year period.

The flagship StoryCorps booth in Grand Central was launched in 2003. In May 2005, two mobile recording booths began one-year treks – one eastbound, the other covering Western states – with scheduled stops at 45 venues. Visits to towns and cities last between two and three weeks, with about 100 interview slots available at each location. The StoryCorps booth in the World Trade Center PATH station opened July 12, 2005, as the first facet of the interim memorial at Ground Zero. Although the recording studio is open to the general public, designated sessions are reserved for people whose lives were directly affected by 9/11.

My parents readily agreed to the interview scheduled during their annual visit to New York, but as the time drew nigh, avoidance set in. They wondered how I would structure the session, if my questions would elicit responses worth recording, and if there was a restroom close enough to the recording booth. Never mind that as a journalist I did this type of thing on a regular basis. They seemed to have forgotten that they’d read fairly coherent pieces I’d written after interviewing Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Kaity Tong, Shari Lewis, Governor Jim Geringer of Wyoming, maestro Dino Anagnost, and dozens of accomplished CUNY professors.

I was reminded of a friend in a similar predicament whose father was unconvinced that the contract his lawyer son had drawn up for the sale of dad’s business was as ironclad as it appeared. Finally, the son asked the father if he would like him to show the document to an attorney. Relief flooded the older man’s face. To our parents, I suppose, we will always be children, even when we lend them our reading glasses.

My father is a proficient raconteur. His tales of immigrant life on the Lower East Side, hand-to-mouth Depression existence, and the heroism and heartache he observed as an infantryman during World War II have kept the family – immediate and extended – at the dinner table long after meals were consumed. My brother and I beg for our favorite stories. Friends ask for retellings. My mother’s oldest friend, Lucille, even gave my dad a tape recorder with the thought that some of his stories might be preserved. He sat down with the device, but without an audience to engage, eye contact, and without laughter, the result was flat. He put the recorder away.

In the booth in Grand Central, it was my job to uncover my father’s gift as a storyteller. We started with his earliest memories. He spoke of visiting an uncle who had been gassed in World War I, sleeping on fire escapes to offset the brutality of heat waves in the tenement, and watching flies feast on dead horses that lay for days outside his East 10th Street boyhood apartment.

As my dad spoke of his school days, during which he was skipped past five grades and considered himself a social outcast, I knew that this dark memoir was not the legacy I wanted him to leave for my children and grandchildren. Where was that hearty sense of humor he engaged to great effect while telling us his stories? Where was the grit and gumption that got him through? As with the tape recorder, the booth was an impersonal medium, I soon realized. My father was not in his element.

So I stopped him, noted this, and then brought up some of my favorite anecdotes. There is the one about the system he and friends devised to “beat the horses” which had my father betting at $50 racetrack windows. He was soon being shadowed by hoodlums and prostitutes who were anxious to get to know the kid with the deep pockets. Pooling their money and betting on “Show,” the young men raked in $800 in one week – a fortune during the height of the Depression. Then their luck ran out.

Another Depression-era story involved a jingle contest run by one of the many newspapers being published in New York City at the time. First prize, which my dad won, was dinner for two at an elegant supper club in Manhattan. Reservations were procured and a letter of introduction from the New York Daily Mirror was presented to the maître d’ – who seated my father and his date at a prime table right next to the dance floor. When the bill came at the end of the evening, my dad handed the waiter a generous tip. The man looked confused. Apparently, the letter of introduction said nothing about the fact that the tab was to be covered by the Mirror. The maître d’ was called, followed by the club’s publicist. Both were clueless. Two beefy bouncers were summoned. By this time my father’s date was in tears and patrons at the other tables had taken sides. Then the music stopped because the band leader came over to offer his two cents. The consensus was that the young man looked sincere and should be allowed to leave. Fearing an escalation of the brouhaha, management relented.

Between us, my father and I were successful in creating a chronicle that, I trust, will be passed down from generation to generation. It is an audio-document that is rich with the pathos, humor, hard luck, serendipity, and tenacity that gets a person through the whole crazy quilt of it all. StoryCorps founder Dave Isay has said: “Listening is an act of love.” A visit to StoryCorps is indeed a loving experience and one that conjures up images of future generations who might some day listen to this personal history and perhaps be lucky enough to understand that love.

Appointments at the StoryCorps booths can be made by visiting the Website or by calling (800) 850-4406.

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